What is special use airspace?

Special use airspace is air space that poses specific risks or requirements to pilots not participating in the operations.

The most common types of special airspace include Prohibited areas, Restricted areas, Warning areas, Military operation areas (MOAs),  Alert areas, and Controlled firing areas (CFAs).

As the name suggests, Prohibited areas are identified areas in which aircraft are not allowed.  Prohibited areas are often created for security reasons.  On aeronautical charts, prohibited areas are identified with a “P” followed by a number, such as P-40, which is Camp David.

Image depicting a prohibited area of special use airspace

Restricted areas are areas identified as hazardous to non-participating aircraft.  Flight into restricted areas is not prohibited, but as the name suggests, there are restrictions.  Restricted areas denote the existence of unusual, often invisible hazards to aircraft, such as artillery firing or aerial gunnery.  To ensure safe flight, the pilot should obtain authorization from the using or controlling agency when active.  The times the airspace is active are listed on the chart, generally in the margin.  However, NOTAMS should be confirmed to determine if changes have occurred.  Times of use shown on the chart are not exclusive.  In fact, some restricted areas include the notation “other times by NOTAM.”  Restricted areas are identified with an “R” followed by a number, such as R-4009, which overlies the prohibited area P-40.  Another example would be R-2307 which is outside of the Yuma Proving Ground in AZ.  Before VFR flight into restricted area, check NOTAMS to determine whether times of use have changed.  Once airborne, contact the controlling agency to determine whether the restricted area is “hot” and to request permission to fly in this airspace.  Frequencies for the controlling agency are listed on Sectional Charts.

Image depicting restricted area special use airspace on a chart

Warning areas are similar to restricted areas, except the United States does not have sole jurisdiction over the airspace.  Warning areas are identified with a “W” and a number, such as W-237.  A warning area is airspace of defined dimensions, extending from 3 NM outward from the coast of the United States, containing activity that may be hazardous to non-participating aircraft.

Image of a chart showing special use airspace military operation area or MOA

Military Operation Areas (MOAs) are defined vertical and lateral areas for military training activities.  MOAs are named on charts, such as BRUSH CREEK MOA.  The back of a chart depicts the times the MOA is active, altitude affected, and the controlling agency.

Image of a chart showing special use airspace military operation area or MOA

Alert areas identify areas of significant pilot training or other type of aerial activity.  All participating and non-participating pilots are responsible for collision avoidance.  Use extreme caution if operating in an alert area.

Controlled firing areas (CFAs) stop activity if a non-participating aircraft is identified.  CFAs are not identified on charts as the activities cease and do not impact the flightpath of the non-participating aircraft.

Reference(s):

FAA-H-8083-25B Pilot’s Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge 15-4
AIM 2018 3-4-1. General
https://sua.faa.gov (displays active SUAs)

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